Only his heartbeat kept him awake. Ellis breathed in slow and listened to the crackle of freezing rain against the snow-tipped branches. When he blinked, he heard the sound of his frozen lashes clink together. He adjusted the butt of his model 70 Winchester against his shoulder and felt the ache in his bones. None of it was new. He’d learned lessons up in this tree blind, out here in the wilds – lessons he should be teaching his sons, but it broke his heart to think of them.
He settled back into a prayer-like stillness and squinted through his scope at the blinding snow. He focused on his heartbeat. His knuckles cracked. The sound of a woodpecker echoed off the hills. Ellis shifted his rifle until he found the bird among pines in the twisted branches, tapping. The woodpecker, who Ellis named Flick, shook the bristles of his Mohawk and stretched his tiny feet. Ellis settled the crosshairs over Flick’s blinking blue eye. He breathed out slow and curled his fingers around the curved walnut grip. A branch shook. An icicle dripped, and Ellis followed the drop with his scope until he saw the dimple it made in the snow.
Then, he heard the scratching. His heart clanged like a hammer. And suddenly there was a kind of music to it all – the tap of the woodpecker, the thump of his heart, the crackle in the trees, and the scratch of antlers. Like a Grandfather clock in a creaking, old house. His scope tumbled through the branches and into a blanket of snow. He knew the path the alpha buck liked to take, just like he knew every branch of Sundrasik’s woods, but he’d never laid eyes on the buck. He trained his scope on the hoofprints in the snow and the notches he’d made at the base of a tree with his knife to mark its trail. He followed the hoofprints until he found the beautiful, whitetail buck, his horns tangled in the limbs of a young hemlock, his thick winter fur darkening, his muscles clutching like a sprinter’s. Just 50 yards through the brush. He was beautiful.
Ellis licked a bead of sweat from his lips and slowed his heart. He was a machine. No fear. No guilt. No sadness. He held his breath, so the fog of his exhale wouldn’t give him away. The buck tapped his hoof in the snow and snorted, a cloud of breath twisting among the branches. Ellis swallowed a knot of tension. He settled his cheek against the stock of his Winchester and heard the murmur of a misfit sound echo in the hills, but the buck made no start. A diamond of sweat slipped through his eyelash. He blinked it away. The crackle of trees. The scratch of antlers.
He heard it again, louder this time – the roar of a dirt bike ricocheting through the trees. He blinked. A Kawasaki KX. He knew it like the sound of his own name. The heat of it between his thighs. The wild rumble in his chest. A cloud of dust swirled in the lights. The wind rushed and roared. The strident howl of the engine like a wolf at the full moon, which rose and fell with every knoll. His boot in the gravel around the curve, rocks pinging at the undercarriage.
Ellis never lost a race. He weaved through the ruts and felt the sway of the bike like a passionate lover. He rushed the last jump and hit the wind. It surged around him. He wiped the mud from his visor. Lights blurred the straightaway and blinded him. He felt another rider closing behind on his left. It was Dustin – the only rider who could stay with him. He braced for impact. His bike hit and bounced, kicking up a mist. The other rider skidded in a cloud of dust, buzzing his back tire.
The earth shook. Ellis tensed. He fought his bike, bucking like a wild bull, and together, they twisted in the dirt. He heard shrieks from the crowd who’d gathered at the makeshift dirt track behind the old Ripley house. He planted his foot. The bike spun. A twister of dust blacked out the lights. He heard his leg snap like a twig, and he wrestled his bike to the mud. His head smacked a rock, and he felt his helmet crack. He blacked out and skidded to a stop, the bike purring beside him.
Three riders roared passed in the dust. In a crackling haze of light and fog, Ellis ripped up a handful of mud and gritted his teeth at the pain. Debris clattered his helmet, and the dust frayed like a sweater into the night sky – all the stars spinning. And in that one moment, he understood everything. The Earth was turning, and his leg was busted. He threw a patch of mud at the sky. The stars fell away. Like he’d just seen the face of God, he rose to his feet on strings and saw Layna in the lights, through the crowd – her wild hair, her ripped-up jeans, her eyes like a panther, and her smile that shines in the sickle moon of your fourth beer. It was always her. It would always be her. Her naked skin that night at the lake, he saw a glimpse of in the moonlight like the flick of a knife.
He slung his leg over the bike and hit the throttle. Only one lap to go, but there was a god inside him now. He could bend time like a garden hose and wrap it around itself. He flew over the course, barely touching the ground – invincible — banking through a curve like he never knew possible. Gravel buzzed beneath his tires, and he felt the grit of the earth brush his knee. The wind never touched him. He weaved through three bikes like a needle and hit the jump so fast that shards of metal ripped from his bike. He soared. Up in the treetops. High above the crowd and the lights. And there was Dustin up ahead, racing for the finish. He had no idea what was coming. But Ellis could see it. He could see the finish, and he’d already won.
He hit the ground. His bike bounced hard left, but he pulled it back in line. Pieces of metal pinged and fell away, spinning in the dirt. He swayed between ruts, and surged passed Dustin, spraying him with a puddle at the finish line. Ellis leapt from his bike, which sputtered and squealed and crashed against a tree. He tumbled in the dirt, then uncoiled to his feet and tossed his helmet in the air. It never came back down. He howled at the moon.
Layna was there first, in a swirl of dust and hair. She leapt into his arms and knocked him to the ground, wrapping him up in her legs.
“That was un-fuckin’-real,” she shrieked. He’d never heard her swear before. She poured her bottle of Rolling Rock over his head. “Oh my god, baby. That was holy fuckin’ epic, like for real.” And she attacked him with hard, wet kisses. “I want your cock,” she whispered in a flurry of kisses. She laughed and gasped above him, and they both breathed in and out the same air.
They were surrounded. Ellis was hefted onto shoulders and stolen away, but he looked back. His heart rattled its cage. He knew now. She was his love story. He watched until her smile finally faded and all he could hear were the crickets.
Ellis opened his eyes. The crosshairs twitched. He heard the antlers scratch like a handsaw. He breathed out slow and waited for his heartbeat. He fired. The gunshot echoed against the hills and every other sound stopped. He swallowed. The buck began untangling himself from the branches, his muscles rippling.
How did he miss? He never misses. In the cramped space of his tree blind, Ellis twisted back the chamber. A bullet slipped between his fingers and tumbled through the branches into the snow. The next bullet slid into the chamber. He clicked the bolt back into place.
The buck took off and bounded through the brush. Ellis tracked him, and fired a second shot. A little of puff of red mist. The buck spun in a new direction and charged down over the hill and out of sight.
Ellis poked his head out of his tree blind. His knees and ankles popped like twigs. He slung his Winchester over his back and cinched the strap so it held tight across his chest. His Winchester was the only real possession he had left. He won it in a poker game.
He leapt over the railing of his tree blind and plummeted twelve feet into the powdery snow. His knees popped again, but he felt great. His leg got a little better every day out in the wilds – eating fresh-killed meat, berries from the vine, and drinking water from the springs. He was beginning to believe the old legends of Bethel Springs’ healing power. He took a moment to stretch out his stiff bones.
Based on the time of day, the way the buck had moved, and the scouting Ellis did over the past two days, he knew the animal had just eaten, so he might overrun. He reveled in the sudden silence, as fluffy flakes of snow began to fall.
He took off running and watched his Red Wing boots crack the surface of the snow. He ran passed the tree where the buck was rubbing and slowed for a moment at the red mist in the snow. That’s where he turned. Ellis followed the tracks and the beads of blood that led down into the gulley. There was an echo that glanced off the treetops.
“I ain’t never seen a boy love a girl so much.” An echo from his past. He stepped into the sun. “Ain’t no door he never opened. Ain’t no flower he never picked.” It made him proud to overhear Mrs. Bebout say that about him that day in the church parking lot. He wanted to be the best boyfriend ever for Layna. He knew he could be. He let the door close behind her and weaved his fingers with hers as she dragged him along, bounding through the parking lot. He thumped along on his cast. She beamed a smile that unbuckled his knees. “Let’s go to the lake and swim under the falls and feel the sand between our toes,” she laughed, her hair bouncing.
He kept running, scrabbling up through the snow on the far side of the gulley. A flash of sunlight glinted off an icicle up in the trees and blinded him for a moment. He ran along the shadow of a tree. He closed his eyes and opened them.
The teardrop diamond necklace in the storefront window of Geisler’s Antiques shop caught his eye. It glowed in the light of the streetlamp. He pressed his nose against the glass. It called his name. It reminded him of her. Earlier that night, he’d thumped down the front stairs of his trailer in his cast — his leg busted in four places. He was supposed to be on crutches. He hobbled through the mud, caressing the new purple bruise below his eye. He spun back to the trailer when his bedroom window shattered. Glass sprayed through the yard. His racing trophy busted to pieces in the mud.
“You worthless shit. Get the shit out my sight. And don’t never come back.” His father poked his fat, hairy head out the busted window and flipped him the peacock. He was high. Ellis didn’t look back. He thumped out to the dirt road and out of the trailer park.
That night, he slept in the leaves under a train trestle. He woke up shaking. The moon laughed. He couldn’t stop thinking on Layna. She was everything — all around him. The wind. The sound of the leaves in the trees. Her face like the moon. Her smooth, perfect skin against the roughness of his hand. He peered at his oil-stained fingers. They were shaking. A tear splashed in his palm and slid along his lifeline.
He was an addict just like his old man. He needed her with a deep need he felt in his throat, in his gut, in his heart. He needed her laugh, her smile, her tiny hand in his. He needed to love her and to feel loved. He slipped and fell and crackled in the leaves. His chest heaved. A rattling train overhead slashed him with flickering moonlight.
Layna was from Bethel Springs, the wealthiest part of town. He knew, no doubt, she was too good for him. He didn’t deserve her. She deserved better. He slapped the tears away. He could be better. He would be better. He would be the best boyfriend. He could be good for her.
He pressed his nose against the window, and his breath frosted the glass. The diamond blinded him, so all he could see were stars. And in the stars, he saw Layna. There was a rock in his hand. He blinked. Glass shattered. He hobbled down the street, watching the stars dance in his hand.
He was still running in the snow, turning with the blooddrops by instinct. It was art the animal made in the snow. There was a red smear on a branch that slashed his face. If he was patient, the buck might just run himself out.
She never took the necklace off, even in bed. He liked it when she was on top, so he could watch the diamond bounce between her breasts. He would watch her face and listen to her soft, breathy sounds and disappear into a part of himself he never knew existed.
He broke the bathroom mirror with his fist. The Grandfather clock chimed. His firstborn son, Jacob, had her eyes. “Okay, buddy,” he told him, and scooped the boy off the floor in his coat. He kissed his forehead. The springs whined as the door slapped shut in Layna’s face.
“Just shut up,” he shouted. “I can’t stand the sound of your voice right now…Please. God.”
“It’s not that much to ask, Ellis. It’s been almost a year. I’ll even help you apply. And Daddy would hire you if you…” She rubbed her fingers over the diamond necklace.
His jaw clenched. “I can’t do this right now.” He’d looked for work nine months before giving up. No one would hire a high school drop-out, with a bum leg and a criminal record, who’d been fired from his last job. Everyone liked him. No one would help him.
“When then? When you’re sober? Good luck with that. Pencil you in for next July.”
The vein in his forehead pulsed. He tossed a slice of his own fingernail on the floor. A tear settled on his eyelash. He turned away. “Bitch.” It wasn’t directed at her. He stormed out. Slammed the door.
He sprawled on the couch, nursing a bottle of Rolling Rock, his hands stained with dirt and oil.
“Get up, Ellis. I have to go to work.”
“So? You have to watch the boys.”
He scratched the label off the bottle.
“I’m not kidding. Get up! Go watch your kids.”
“What the hell’re you talking about? They’re right there.” He gestured wildly. “Just go.”
“They’re upstairs!” Layna closed her eyes and took a breath. “Ok, baby. I’m sorry. I just need you to step up right now. I need to trust that you can…”
“You can trust me. I’m right here.”
“Babe. I was at the Station, last night working until two, and when I got back, where were you? You were God knows where and…” Chase Station was the bar/restaurant her family had owned and operated for the last sixteen years. Layna worked the hostess stand, ran the books, and designed all their marketing. Business was finally picking up again after a three year lull that nearly bankrupted her parents.
“Come on.” Ellis scratched his fingers through his hair. “They were sleeping. You don’t have to be so…”
“Joshua was screaming his lungs out when I got home.”
“You’re so dramatic. He…he was fine. He just…”
“I’m gonna have my Mom…”
“…come over today…”
“No. No. No.”
“…and watch the kids.”
“There is no way in Hell that’s happening. I can watch my own god damn kids. I’m not a cripple.” The light from the diamond necklace flashed in his eyes. He threw his bottle against the wall near that lamp he hated. It shattered. A picture of the two of them shook for a moment and then slid down off the wall before falling behind the book shelf.
He didn’t know how it happened. Couldn’t explain it if he lived a thousand years. He met Layna during her rebellious phase. He knew that. She grew up. He didn’t. For him, it wasn’t a phase. He was stuck. But that wasn’t everything. He knew she had loved him and maybe still did. They were happy once.
The snow fell harder now. He was still running. He brushed icicles from his ragged beard. His bad leg throbbed. He knelt for a moment in the snow, breathing hard. He still loved her. That was what broke his heart. He hated she had to work, that he couldn’t support his own family. He wanted better for her. He could be better. He could be everything she ever needed. But he wasn’t. Remember that night behind the old Ripley house when he was her hero. Remember that night when he gave her the necklace, and her eyes popped like firecrackers. Remember when he made her happy.
He saw his reflection in the bathroom mirror. The dark circles. The gray strands. The crow’s feet. That wasn’t him. He was only 24. He could beat time. He was faster, stronger – never lost a race. He punched the mirror. Glass shattered. His knuckles bled red spirals in the sink. “Joshua! Stop crying god dammit!” He gulped his Rolling Rock from the bottle. He tripped down the stairs. The room spun. The door slammed.
“Hit the rock, Buddy.” He stretched his fist toward his youngest son, who blinked up at him from his crib. He stuck his own finger in his mouth and pulled it out with a stream of spit. “Go on. Hit it. Hit that rock.” Joshua said something that sounded like, “Boo poo.” Ellis rubbed his knuckles against the top of his son’s head, leaving streaks of blood in his hair. Joshua laughed. Ellis grunted. The spinning toy plane mobile bumped his head. He swatted at it. Joshua laughed. Ellis took a drink and walked out.
“Where were you?”
“Joshua cried all night. I needed you here.”
“I juss, um… went for a drink.”
Suddenly, she was crying, gasping, clutching her diamond necklace. “Do you even love our children?”
“What? Babe, don’t don’t ass me that. Don’t ass…I…”
“Do you love me,” she wailed, her knees unbuckling.
He hit her. Once in the eye. Quick. Tight. The sound of a single typewriter key. A lone, desperate letter on a blank page, ink dripping.
She went down. The Grandfather clock chimed. He tripped back on a twisted rug and hit his head on a step. They were both on the floor. “I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry,” he pleaded at the swirls in the ceiling.
Silently, she rose, clutching her face. In 10 minutes, the boys were dressed in coats and hats. Joshua on her hip, Jacob clumping behind in his red boots, she descended the stairs and stepped over him on her way out the door. He watched her diamond necklace spin and strobe lights over the walls and ceiling.
“Bye, Daddy.” Jacob sniffled and stretched his arm over his head. Ellis grabbed the sleeve of his jacket but lacked the strength to hold on. She took his sons away.
He heard the car door slam and the engine cough and the gravel crunch beneath the tires, and then there was a galaxy of nothing.
For 3 days, he lay in a puddle on that crumpled rug — a ruin of a once-thriving civilization. Beneath the rubble of fear, guilt, and rage lay a remarkably preserved artifact. Slender hands with fingernails gnawed to the quick and oil stains as evidence of a sadly preserved dream and a wrecked dirt bike in the garage. A titanium wedding band symbolizes his unfulfilled promise. Brush away the dust and debris to unearth an athletic build with a small ring of belly fat and the knotted, calcified remnants of a shattered leg bone. And buried in the dark, lonely center beneath a tangled thicket of thorns lies a deep, empty well, cracked and weathered by time. It was once the crown jewel of a bustling life brimming with love and hope and passion, but when it dried up, it left behind a dark, barren wasteland.
He stopped in the snow, breathing hard in a tunnel of trees. Drops of blood stretched out as far as he could see. Puffy snowflakes fell all around. Like a lightning bolt, he knew exactly where the buck was headed. He’d spotted tracks in the little grove down by Foxx’s Creek just the other day. But he was taking the long way. Ellis knew he could cut him off if he went along the ridge and saved at least a half mile. He turned and took off running into a pure white blanket of snow.
Layna’s Dad and her two brothers, Elvin and Kyle, were on the front porch with shotguns when Ellis pulled into her parents’ driveway. They could hear his dirt bike coming all the way down the road. He cut the engine and spat in the grass. The old man stormed down the porch steps and fired a shot in the dirt that thundered across the valley.
“You’re not welcome here. Git off my prop’ty,” he howled. A stream of spit dripped from his chin. “You will never see her ever again.” His voice cracked. The shotgun lowered as he raged toward Ellis. Elvin and Kyle chased him across the driveway.
Ellis raised his hands. “Please. I just need to see her.” He wiped a streak of snot and tears with the sleeve of his leather jacket.
“You just need to go straight back to hell,” the old man thundered. He stopped ten feet away and raised the gun at Ellis’s chest. A distant shock of lightning popped over the hills. The shotgun shook. The old man’s eye narrowed down the barrel. “You son of a bitch,” he wheezed, his chest heaving. “I seen you this whole time. I seen exactly what you were from the start. You never charmed me.”
Elvin and Kyle ran up beside the old man and reined him in. Ellis watched the fury flicker in the old man’s eyes and heard the whistle in his lungs. He glanced at the window over the front porch where he hoped to see Layna’s face hanging like a pearl between the curtains and the broken light from her diamond necklace. He saw nothing. It wasn’t long ago, he and Layna spent the night up on that roof right there under the stars, and he watched the moonlight dance over her face and hair when she saw that necklace for the first time. Her eyes gasped in wonder. Her graceful fingers traced across her lips and a single tear bloomed on her cheek. He smiled in relief and marveled at her beauty, and all the world was right.
The old man’s shoulders rose and fell. He looked suddenly frail. Elvin cocked his gun. “You better git.”
Ellis swung his leg over his bike and cranked the engine. One last look at her bedroom window. He spun in the grass and screamed down the road. He spat in the wind and glanced in his rearview at the shaking pines and a billow of smoke from the old man’s chimney.
He was running again, his boots crunching the snow. He could feel his lungs burning and his leg throbbing. He felt the wind in his face and almost heard his dirt bike again – but not quite. He looked up through the swaying branches at the cement slab sky, and watched his breath puff like a cloud.
He heard the clatter of twigs and the beating of hooves that matched his own heartbeat. The buck was close, and he was hauling ass. Ellis ran to the ledge – a twelve foot drop. He flicked the knife from his shoulder harness and licked a bead of sweat from his lip.
He jumped and was falling but somehow in perfect control. The buck charged below. He felt the wind. The world spun. His body slammed the buck like a wrestler off the top turnbuckle. The buck’s legs gave out. They tumbled together. He felt the animal’s sweat. The buck kicked and thrashed and rolled over on him, and its spine crack against his ribs.
He flashed his knife. A spatter of red against the ocean of white. The animal twitched, and Ellis rose above him, warm with its blood. He saw the fear in the buck’s eyes, and he felt it as deep as the Earth. He felt it throb in his own veins. He swallowed regret. He fell to his knees in the snow. The clouds rushed like pouring cement, and the buck’s failing eye mirrored it back at him. A ripple of the animal’s last breath twisted around him, and a single tear dripped from his nose leaving a dimple in the snow.
Gary Porter has loving parents and a beautiful, amazing wife. He works hard when he’s at work, and in his free time, he swims, plays guitar, and writes stories that he hopes make you feel loved. He was an English teacher for three years, but that sucked. Now, he trains customer service representatives, and that’s a little better. This is his first publication.